Some veterans of the Obama administration — Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, to name the authors of two recent memoirs — came to the exercise as writers, with at least the expectation of some literary flair. Hillary Clinton, no surprise, published a cautious book during the campaign about her four years as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Robert Gates vented his frustration, as defense secretary, with a craven Congress and a president he felt lacked his passion for the troops.
What I enjoy about these books is less their recounting of high-level debates and bureaucratic infighting than the window into lives beyond the closed doors of power. Who are they when they leave the office at night?
Susan Rice’s contribution to the genre, “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,” is the tale of a black child of privilege, raised in the overwhelmingly white world of official Washington by accomplished parents in a troubled marriage, who rose fast in the foreign policy ranks while learning to claim and celebrate her race and juggle her own marriage and motherhood without asserting special dispensation.
Rice, who served eight years in the Obama administration, first as ambassador to the United Nations and then as national security adviser, is widely known as smart, sharp-tongued and relentless. She cops freely to her reputation, delivered in a warning from a mentor early in her career, as “too hard-charging and hardheaded,” someone who tends to “quell dissent and stifle contrary advice.” As with many women in high places, the B-word is not unfamiliar to her.
Nor is the N-word, first directed at Rice by a beloved high school basketball coach she played for as a student at Washington’s prestigious National Cathedral School. “Reflexively and immediately, I replied, ‘F--- you,’ ” she reports, before going on to praise the coach’s skills and regretting her departure for another job two years later.
For someone who has covered Rice, and interviewed her a number of times over the years, that and other elements of her life story explain a lot.
Beginning at age 7, Rice reports, she took it upon herself to serve as peacemaker in her parents’ deteriorating relationship. As their combat escalated, her father, Emmett Rice, a descendant of slaves, who was scarred by decades of discrimination in his native South but ultimately became a governor of the Federal Reserve, “hired a private investigator to spy on my mother.” Her mother, Lois Rice, the New England-bred, Ivy League-educated daughter of Jamaican immigrants who long served as a senior official in the organization that runs the College Board, “clandestinely installed recording devices in our house to entrap my father.” With young Susan as confidante, Lois frequently threatened suicide.
“They really didn’t like each other and maybe rarely had,” she says of her parents. As their mutual abuse moved from verbal to physical, and even divorce did not keep them from the attack, “I learned how to compartmentalize conflict, protect myself emotionally and psychically, and bounce back from adversity,” she writes.
Rice delves into the major policy issues she dealt with during four years as U.N. ambassador, although her account mainly chronicles her own actions and says little about contributions from other members of the administration. She places most in the success column. U.S. leadership, she writes, was reestablished at a U.N. Security Council still smarting over George Bush’s Iraq War. North Korean sanctions were won. Initial lines of dialogue with Iran were established.
Among the less-happy outcomes Rice describes, South Sudan, a place of particular interest to her from her youthful days as an Africa specialist, became a new country, then sadly unraveled. In 2011, the United States and its allies bombed Libya to prevent a mass slaughter by Moammar Gaddafi of his political opponents in the eastern part of the country, a mission that “initially . . . seemed a triumph of good over evil.” But while “the U.S. intervened for the right reasons,” she writes, the result echoed the disaster of an earlier American intervention in Somalia: “We made fewer mistakes and paid a far lesser price for our success protecting civilians in Libya than we did in Somalia. And yet what we left behind is not dissimilar — a fractured state without an effective central government, continued factional fighting, a lingering terrorist threat, and a source of insecurity in the region.”
Part of the extended fallout from the failure “to try hard enough and early enough to win the peace” in Libya was the 2012 killing by extremists of four U.S. officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Benghazi. Rice devotes a chapter to the repercussions of her TV talk show appearances on the Sunday after the attack, when her first-draft report of what happened later became evidence in the Republican case against Obama and made her a punching bag for the right. But she sheds little new light on a story that was subsequently investigated and heavily covered, and about which she has since often spoken and written.
Similarly, she provides few surprises about her time as national security adviser, including the decisions she opposed, such as Obama’s refusal to take military action after a chemical weapons attack in Syria; her overall respect and affection for him; and her frustration at his often cold-blooded intellectualizing about life-and-death choices. She applauds the opening to Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal, and adds some details to the known universe of how the administration responded to the rise of the Islamic State and initial reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Interspersed among these dutiful brussels sprouts, however, are gossipy descriptions of important people, along with stories of sisterhood, occasional insecurity, raucous dance parties among bureaucrats and an uncomfortable encounter with pre-presidential Donald Trump. There are lessons on pumping breast milk on an official trip to Africa while your infant is thousands of miles away, conducting a long-distance marriage, relating to a grown son whose politics and ideology are 180 degrees from your own, and enduring the loss of parents. Real-life stuff.
My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For
By Susan Rice
Simon & Schuster. 531 pp. $30